An updated conceptual model of Delta Smelt biology: Our evolving understanding of an estuarine fish

Technical Report 90
By: , and 



The main purpose of this report is to provide an up-to-date assessment and conceptual model of factors affecting Delta Smelt (Hypomesus transpacificus) throughout its primarily annual life cycle and to demonstrate how this conceptual model can be used for scientific and management purposes. The Delta Smelt is a small estuarine fish that only occurs in the San Francisco Estuary. Once abundant, it is now rare and has been protected under the federal and California Endangered Species Acts since 1993. The Delta Smelt listing was related to a step decline in the early 1980s; however, population abundance decreased even further with the onset of the “pelagic organism decline” (POD) around 2002. A substantial, albeit short-lived, increase in abundance of all life stages in 2011 showed that the Delta Smelt population can still rebound when conditions are favorable for spawning, growth, and survival. In this report, we update previous conceptual models for Delta Smelt to reflect new data and information since the release of the last synthesis report about the POD by the Interagency Ecological Program for the San Francisco Estuary (IEP) in 2010. Specific objectives include: 1. Provide decision makers with a practical tool for evaluating difficult trade-offs associated with management and policy decisions. 2. Provide scientists with a framework from which they can formulate and evaluate hypotheses using qualitative or quantitative models. 3. Provide the general public with a new way of learning about Delta Smelt and their habitat. Our updated conceptual model describes the habitat conditions and ecosystem drivers affecting each Delta Smelt life stage, across seasons and how the seasonal effects contribute to the annual success of the species. The conceptual model consists of two nested and linked levels of increasing specificity. The general life cycle conceptual model for four Delta Smelt life stages (adults, eggs and larvae, juveniles, and subadults) includes stationary ecosystem components and dynamic environmental drivers, habitat attributes, and Delta Smelt responses. The more detailed life stage transition conceptual models for each of the four Delta Smelt life stages describe relationships between environmental drivers, key habitat attributes, and the responses of Delta Smelt to habitat attributes as they transition from one life stage to the next. Our analyses and conceptual model show that good larval recruitment is essential for setting the stage for a strong year class; however, increased growth and survival through subsequent life stages are also needed to achieve and sustain higher population abundance. We used our conceptual model to generate 16 hypotheses about the factors that may have contributed to the 2011 increase in Delta Smelt relative abundance. We then evaluated these hypotheses by comparing habitat conditions and Delta Smelt responses in the wet year 2011 to those in the prior wet year 2006 and in the drier years 2005 and 2010. Larval recruitment was similarly high in both wet years and lower in the drier antecedent years, but juvenile and adult abundance increased only in 2011. In 2005 and 2006, the population was limited by very poor survival from the larval to the juvenile life stage. We found that in 2011, Delta Smelt may have benefitted from a combination of favorable habitat conditions throughout the year, including: 1. Adults and larvae benefitted from prolonged cool spring water temperatures, high 2011 winter and spring outflows which reduced entrainment risk and possibly improved other habitat conditions, and possibly enhanced food availability in late spring. 2. Juveniles benefitted from cool water temperatures in late spring and early summer as well as from improved food availability and low levels of harmful Microcystis. 3. Subadults also benefitted from improved food availability and from favorable habitat conditions in the large, low salinity zone (salinity 1-6) located more toward Suisun Bay,

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Publication type Report
Publication Subtype Other Report
Title An updated conceptual model of Delta Smelt biology: Our evolving understanding of an estuarine fish
Series title Technical Report
Series number 90
Year Published 2015
Language English
Publisher Interagency Ecological Program, California Department of Water Resources
Contributing office(s) California Water Science Center
Description xvi, 206 p.
Country United States
State California
Other Geospatial San Francisco Estuary
Google Analytic Metrics Metrics page
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